Cameron’s Legacy and Future Prospects for UK Foreign Policy

In a move that surprised even the most engaged Westminster politicos, on the 12th November former UK Prime Minister David Cameron was appointed as the UK’s new Foreign Secretary. Cameron, who was Prime Minister from 2010 – 2016, is not a sitting MP, and in a rather unconventional move has been appointed a life peer in order to allow him to sit as Foreign Secretary. But what is Lord Cameron’s foreign policy legacy and what might it tell us about the future of the UK foreign policy?

A Safe Pair of Hands

In a time of significant global instability and heading into a likely election year, bringing a former Prime Minister into such an important brief is designed to bring stability and credibility to the Conservative party, the UK Government, and the UK’s position in the world. Cameron’s foreign policy legacy is complex – not least due to his decision to call the EU referendum – nevertheless, Cameron’s appointment is designed as a show of strength, by bringing back a widely respected leader back to the world stage. Of particular benefit will be the strength of Cameron’s connections all over the world, secured from his time as Prime Minister, which will be crucial to realising the UK’s ambitions for its post-Brexit position in the world.

A China Dove

The biggest question around Cameron’s appointment though surrounds his approach to China. As Prime Minister, Cameron oversaw the ‘golden-era’ of UK-China relations, hosting Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and strongly encouraging Chinese investment in the UK. Since leaving office he’s been heavily involved in China, including supporting efforts to create a US$1 billion UK-China investment fund to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Since Cameron’s time in office the golden-era has been and gone and as US-China relations have deteriorated, so too have UK-China relations. Growing security concerns have led to renewed caution over engagement with China, with domestic resilience now front and centre of UK foreign policy decision-making. 

While himself a supporter of close UK-China relations, Cameron will be highly cognisant that we are no longer in the ‘golden-era’. Indeed, the wider geopolitical environment and the prevalence of China hawks within his own party will temper any attempts to significantly shift the UK’s approach to China. Furthermore, recent months have been characterised by attempts to soften relations with China, with now former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visiting Beijing in August in a bid to improve communication between the two nations. As such, while Cameron’s appointment is in stark contrast to the highly hawkish approach of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, it’s the continuation of a trend, which many UK allies are also undertaking, to de-escalate tensions with China. This won’t be the golden-era, but Cameron will hope it will be a less tense era in UK-China relations (wider geopolitics permitting!).

An Unpopular Remainer

When David Cameron called the EU referendum he hoped it would unite a divided Conservative party, undermine the growing influence of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and finally settle the Europe question once and for all. Instead, after backing the unsuccessful Remain campaign, the referendum forced Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister. But while the topic no doubt brings back bad memories for the former Prime Minister, it is clear that he remains supportive of constructive UK-EU relations. Since leaving office he’s spoken of the need to be a  ‘friend’ and ‘partner’ of the EU, while remaining out of the union itself. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the signing of the Windsor Framework already improving relations between the UK and the EU over the last year, Cameron will find fertile ground to continue to improve relations and find opportunities for cooperation.

The challenge for Cameron though is the perception of European partners, many of whom will no doubt be cautious of strengthening UK-EU relations with a man they strongly associate with Brexit. Nevertheless, given Cameron himself voted Remain, and that we are likely already past the high point in post-Brexit UK-EU tensions, if Cameron can successfully position himself as a constructive partner to Europe early on in his tenure, Europe may quickly come to welcome the familiar face.

A Sort of Special-Relationship

During his time as Prime Minister David Cameron was famed for his ‘bromance’ with President Barack Obama, with the two even photographed together at football games and barbecues. However, the relationship turned sour in 2016 with Obama pressuring Cameron to increase UK defence spending and growing frustrated by the UK’s approach to Libya and its strengthening ties with China under Cameron. While Cameron will hope the Democrats are able to put aside some of their past grievances with his foreign policy, it is unlikely we would see any substantive shift in the US-UK relationship, not least because the ‘special relationship’ has a remarkable propensity to endure even as the personalities leading the two nations change. 

A Champion for International Development

One of David Cameron’s most defining foreign policy priorities during his time as Prime Minister was his commitment to international aid and development. In 2013 Cameron oversaw the UK meeting its commitment to spending 0.7% GNI on international aid and development for the first time, and during his tenure he consistently defended international development from attacks from within his own party. Out of office he’s been vocally critical of aid cuts, calling them ‘a moral, strategic and political mistake’ and while in recent months he’s been less vocally wedded to the 0.7% GNI commitment, calling himself a ‘realist’ on the economic challenges around the commitment, it’s clear he remains confident in the moral and strategic need for UK international aid and development. 

There are clear parallels between his perspective on aid and that of Andrew Mitchell, Minister for Development and Africa, with whom he previously worked in Cabinet in 2010, and who is likely to deputise for him in the Commons. With little public support for restoring the aid budget to 0.7% GNI, it is unlikely that they would bring back the commitment (especially not before a likely election next year) but with the two strong advocates of international development in the FCDO, the international development sector certainly feels more secure than it has in recent years. The key question that remains though is whether the International Development Strategy, scheduled to be released next Monday (20th) will be postponed to secure buy-in from the new Foreign Secretary or whether there is already enough consensus between the two men for the Strategy launch to go ahead as planned.

An Immigration Skeptic

In the 2010 general election campaign Cameron made reducing migration a significant tenet of his campaign, promising to bring net migration down to “tens of thousands” a year. He failed to make good on this commitment, with net migration rising to 379,000 a year by the time of the 2015 election. Cameron also sought (unsuccessfully) to court anti-immigrant sentiment to support the Remain campaign during the EU referendum, arguing that leaving the EU would lead to camps of illegal migrants in the UK. 

In regard to current debates around immigration, Cameron has endorsed the Rwanda plan as the “best available option” and has welcomed the government’s tough rhetoric on people smuggling. With Cleverly focusing the announcement of his new role as Home Secretary on tackling the small boats crisis, and the Supreme Court set to announce its verdict on the legality of the government’s Rwanda migration plan on Wednesday, migration will be one of Cameron’s first big tests in his new role. If, as many expect, the Government loses the Supreme Court battle, there will no doubt be renewed calls for the UK to leave the European Convention of Human Rights, including from the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, forcing Cameron to nail his colours to the mast on migration early on. Cameron had his own challenges with the ECHR while he was Prime Minister, threatening to leave the ECHR over proposed changes to UK human rights laws. Given his anti-migrant rhetoric and his prior dissatisfaction with the ECHR, Cameron can be expected to talk tough on immigration though it remains to be seen how far Cameron would be willing to go for the Rwanda policy in practice. 

Experienced in Russia and Ukraine

David Cameron has a depth of experience dealing with Russia and Ukraine. While Cameron was Prime Minister, Putin annexed Crimea and armed separatist rebels in the Donbas. In response, Cameron was vocal in advocating for sanctions, providing aid for Ukraine and supporting the training of Ukrainian troops. He also claims to have played a key role in the expulsion of Russia from the G8 in response to the annexation. While there are questions to be asked about what the UK and its allies could and should have done differently in Crimea, not least given the current war in Ukraine, there is nothing to suggest Cameron’s approach to the current crisis in Ukraine would differ in any substantive way from current government policy. Support for Ukraine is one of the few areas of policy which benefits from strong support across Westminster and Cameron himself drove a van containing supplies for Ukrainian refugees to Poland in 2022 to support those affected by the crisis. Given his experience and knowledge of the region and his personal commitment to it, the UK looks set to continue to try and lead on Ukraine.

A Difficult Middle Eastern Legacy

Cameron’s legacy in the Middle East is challenging. Cameron was one of the main architects of the multinational military intervention in Libya in 2011. The intervention contributed to the toppling of Colonel Gaddaffi’s regime, the collapse of Libya politically and economically and the rise of the Islamic State. The intervention was strongly condemned by the UK Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016 with Cameron declared ‘ultimately responsible’ for the failed intervention. The intervention also worsened UK-US relations, with US President Obama blaming Europe for the collapse of Libya in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s downfall.  

Cameron also struggled to respond to the Syrian civil war and his authority was damaged in 2013 when Parliament, including many of his own MPs, rejected his plan to back a United States-led retaliatory strike against chemical weapons installations that had allegedly been used by Bashar al-Assad’s Government. Cameron’s failure to secure consensus in the UK also stunted the broader international response, having directly influenced President Obama’s decision to seek legislative authorisation too, by which point a de-escalation deal had been brokered, and Obama and the United States had lost the opportunity to stand firm on its ‘red line’ threats. While, in the wake of the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Cameron finally managed to secure Parliament’s approval for airstrikes against Syria, his authority as a confident and authoritative actor in the region had already taken a significant hit. 

No doubt this past history will weigh on Cameron’s mind, and in the minds of those he engages with in the region, as he attempts to tackle the current crisis in the Middle East. Except for a tweet on October 9th in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ attack, in which he expressed ‘complete solidarity with Israel’, Cameron has so far said relatively little about the Israel-Hamas war. Historically, Cameron has simultaneously sought of himself as a steady friend of Israel, committing to stand steadfastly by its side, while also critiquing specific Israeli policies in Gaza. He previously described Gaza as a ‘prison camp’, and criticised Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as ‘genuinely shocking’. Cameron then is unlikely to significantly shift government policy on Israel, Hamas or Gaza, but he will carry significant baggage with him in his efforts to help secure peace and stability in the region.

Where to Next?

Cameron’s appointment is in many ways unprecedented. It will bring with it baggage, particularly with our European and Middle Eastern partners, but Cameron will also bring knowledge, networks and experience to the benefit of the UK’s position in the world. And we are, of course, living in different times to when Cameron was Prime Minister. While it is useful to understand his legacy and world view, no doubt his approach to his new role will be shaped as much by current geopolitics and domestic perspectives as by his own perspective. He is still operating within the same political and party constraints as his predecessor James Cleverly was, and is unlikely, especially at this stage, to lurch in a dramatically new direction on foreign policy. But what it does show is that the UK wants to be seen as a stable and credible actor on the world stage. Only time will tell if that works.

Evie Aspinall and Eliza Keogh